A strong Navy is key to America's diplomatic standing and containing an aggressive China. Yet soaring debt threatens US naval prominence. That's why maritime defense is the sleeper issue of these midterm elections.
For most Americans, naval power is like gravity. They know it's there, they know it's forceful, but they don't really feel it or understand it. So they won't be thinking about the state of US fleet readiness when they vote in midterm elections.
That's a mistake, because our commitment to naval power today will affect America's standing in the world – and its ability to contain an increasingly aggressive China – for the next half century. Yet this commitment is on shaky ground given the out-of-control national debt. And the ruling party has few hands on deck to meet this national challenge.
One gauge of a great power's military stature is the readiness of its fleet versus that of its likely foes.
According to a 2009 Pentagon report, China has an estimated 260 naval vessels, all concentrated in East Asia. The United States has 288 battle-force ships with 11 carrier task forces and dozens of nuclear submarines as the crown jewels. The US fleet patrols worldwide. China's fleet has been concentrated in its home waters, but its range is rapidly extending to as far as the Middle East.
"China seeks domination of the South China Sea to be the dominant power in much of the Eastern Hemisphere," defense expert Robert D. Kaplan has written. As Mr. Kaplan notes, the South China Sea is a vital route for much of Asia's commercial traffic and energy needs. The US and other nations consider it an international passageway. China calls it a "core interest."